Last Word on Coming Together

January 2020

By // Paul Toner, J.D.

Director of National Policy, Partnerships and the Northeast Region at Teach Plus

Paul Toner is the senior director of national policy, partnerships and the Northeast region at Teach Plus, where he works to engage and elevate the voices of teachers in local, state and national education policy. Toner is the former president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association and Cambridge Education Association. He is a member of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, a Pahara-Aspen Teacher Leader Fellow and member of the Broad Academy class of 2017.

Coming Together to Prepare
Teachers to Educate for the Future

Under the banner of “Red for Ed” and slogans such as “When we fight, we win,” teachers, activists and unions across the country have been on the move and demanding significantly more financial resources from their community, business and political leaders to support the essential, life-changing work they do. They are seeking respect for their profession and acknowledgment that the future of our country relies on the education of our students. They have been effective in raising the issues and calling the public’s attention to the challenges faced by educators in our public schools.

American public schools and educators are being asked to do something they have never been asked to do before and were not designed to do. Not only are teachers tasked with preparing ALL students academically for college and future careers, active participation as citizens, and future leadership of our democracy, they are also expected to meet students’ emotional needs. We have entered a world of profound change in which knowledge — not industry — is the future. Thinking for a living is the norm, not the exception, and predictions about the “future of work” seem to be ever-changing.

“When we fight, we win” isn’t a long-term strategy. What we need is collaborative, student-centered leadership.Paul Toner, J.D.

Understandably, with all these pressures and demands for change, teachers and their unions have taken to the streets in several states and cities. They have demanded more resources for their students and schools, as well as better salaries, benefits and working conditions for themselves. Critics attack the unions as being self-serving and only concerned with increasing their membership and protecting their members while stifling much-needed reforms to better serve students. Unfortunately, this has created a very polarized education environment.

Based on recent public opinion polls, teachers and their unions are benefiting from significant support for their cause. Unions should absolutely advocate for good salaries, benefits, due process protections, and the tools and resources they need to do their jobs well. In the long term, however, “When we fight, we win” is not a strategy for success. To maintain public support for better compensation and the financial resources needed to meet the unmet needs in our schools, teachers and their unions must lead the profession and put forth a proactive set of solutions that are student-centered, resulting in better outcomes for all students. They must be flexible and open to new ideas. They need to take charge of quality by setting academic standards, developing student assessments, promoting better teacher preparation and professional development, supporting meaningful evaluations leading to continuous improvement, and most importantly, demanding shared leadership of our schools while taking shared responsibility for the success of our students.

Public education is no longer strictly a local affair involving superintendents, school boards and the teachers’ union. Concerns about funding inequities, low-performing schools and wide gaps in student achievement have led to a series of reforms giving the state and federal government more say in how schools and teachers work. These are tumultuous times, but I believe there is an enormous opportunity for teachers — along with parents, students and community partners — to take on the mantle of leadership and promote a real transformation in education and society. In order for us to address these challenges, we must cultivate a culture of achievement in our schools.

This requires developing a sense of shared ownership of the challenges that we face among all constituencies. We need strong, systemic and respectful processes that allow teachers, students, parents and administrators to develop shared solutions that result in advancing student, school and district achievement levels. Effective labor-management collaboration through networks of educators and administrators based on mutual respect and trust is an essential component to improving the learning of all students across diverse communities. It has been verified through recent research that when teachers’ unions and districts collaborate, students learn more. The NEA, AFT, AASA and NSBA have signed onto the National Call to Action for Collaboration. The NEA is providing resources and training its members who are seeking to develop collaborative partnerships to promote student success

Educators want to be treated like professionals and have more voice in shaping policy and practice in their schools and classrooms. They want to be the architects of transforming education and not the object of reforms. The only way we can bring about lasting and meaningful change in our schools for the benefit of our students is to provide teachers with a meaningful voice in the decisions affecting their day-to-day work life and developing strong labor-management collaboration at all levels — national, state and local. The future is filled with more challenges and the work of collaboration takes time and is extraordinarily complicated. It requires setting common goals and working with many constituencies. But we can’t make big change without teachers and the unions, which are both a major part of that process and structure of engagement.

Ultimately, as a nation, if we expect to hold onto our current teacher workforce and recruit a new, more diverse generation of high-quality teachers into the profession, we must do much more to promote respect for the profession, promote teacher leadership and provide the financial supports to make it a sustainable career.

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